Lynko Morimoto, a 30-year-old business owner in Tokyo, doesn't look back nostalgically on her days when she worked as an "office girl" in her hometown of Osaka in western Japan.
"Starting up my own business in my mid-20s was definitely not an easy proposition," says Morimoto, who has been running her company AILA International since 2006 selling belts that make use of fashion scarves called "Belticaf."
"I knew nobody in Tokyo. I just had this idea of combining a conventional belt and a scarf to create a fashion accessory. All I had was this business idea but hardly any knowledge on running a business."
Four years later, her Belticaf products are sold at boutiques and department stores across Japan as well as on her Web site. Maintaining a steady income still can be tough but Morimoto does not think twice about going back to work as an office girl. "I am in control of my own destiny. I feel like I am really living now."
It was not long ago that most Japanese women took the traditional path of becoming full-time homemakers right out of school or after spending a few years in the workforce. Many companies even had policies, written or unwritten, that women had to leave their jobs when they got married or pregnant.
"In the pursuit of diversity at workplace, that culture changed in the past 20 years or so," said Kyoko Yokota, the president of Colabolabo, a PR company which also provides networking services especially for female entrepreneurs. "Now women can work for a company for as long as she wants to – if that is what she wants, "said Yokota, who worked for one of Japan's leading advertisement and human resources companies, Recruit Co. Ltd. "I have seen more women wanting to think and work outside the box and start up their own businesses using their skills and background they have acquired over the years in the corporate world."
Since she launched her business in 2006, Yokota has seen nearly 1,000 female entrepreneurs.
"The attitude towards women wanting to have their own business has changed and is changing," Yokota said. "It might have been difficult for a woman to even apply for a business loan 10 years ago or so. People often thought she might have a male sponsor or something. But now if she has a legitimate business plan, she can get a loan to get her business going."
Women Taking Control of Their Destinies
In fact, more women are taking their destiny into their own hands instead of relying on corporate employment. Japan Finance Corporation, a government financial institution specializing in providing services and loans to small and mid-sized business owners, has seen a steady rise in the number of loans extended to female business owners over the past few years. In 2007, the institution offered more than 5,000 loans to female business owners, roughly 40 percent more loans than were available to women in 2003.
These are not easy times for any business in Japan. In 2008, more than 12,000 businesses went bankrupt with more than $100,000 in debt and the number of bankruptcies has increased for the past few years, according to Teikoku Databank, Ltd.
Although the environment for female entrepreneurs is no different than for that of male counterparts, Yokota feels many female business owners seem to be braving the current economic challenges. "Business start-ups can be a by-product of an economic downturn," Yokota said. "We could and should see a spur in the number of female business owners."
Yokota and fellow female entrepreneur Sonoe Azuma hosted a networking event for female business executives in Tokyo this spring called J300. It was the first of its kind in Japan and drew more than 300 female business owners. "We felt it was time for female entrepreneurs to get together, meet and network," Azuma said.
Both Yokota and Azuma say their cause was well-received, beyond their expectations. "We wanted to start a network among female business owners, who still make up a minority in the world of self entrepreneurship," said Yokota. "Many female executives are pretty resilient and their strength can help them push through the recession."
Trenders Inc., a Tokyo-based PR and marketing firm, has been running a private school for female entrepreneurs for almost eight years. "Our student enrollment has been on the rise since last fall and we had to expand the class size," said Mayu Yamaguchi, a career counselor at Trenders's school, Josei Kigyojuku, a school for female business starters.
From Housewife to Entrepreneur
"More women beginning to realize working for a large corporation is not the only way for self actualization," Yamaguchi said. "When the school opened, we saw more homemakers attending the class. They were more interested in turning their hobby into a business. We now see more career women who try to prepare for their business start-ups before leaving their full-time jobs."
The students' age range varies from the late 20s to the early 40s, according to Yamaguchi. "Since the economy started to decline last fall, we have seen more women working for well-known companies, domestic or foreign. Some women also said they wanted to start something because they fear their husbands could be laid off given the current corporate climate," Yamaguchi said.
The school has produced more than 2,000 graduates since opening in 2001 – roughly 40 percent of them actually went into their own business. "We have heard of very few cases of business closures," said Tomoko Nishikawa, another career counselor at the school. "That is because many women do not take too big a risk financially as they launch their business. They invest a small amount of money as they start and do not necessarily try to take a large loan upfront."
The school recommends students to strive for a business size of about $1 million in annual sales. That allows the owner to hire a few employees and take $200,000 – $300,000 as salary. "We recommend this model so that the owners can keep their business to a somewhat manageable size but large enough to delegate tasks among a few employees and profitable enough to give them financial freedom," Yamaguchi said. "But we have seen more women trying to seek a balance between self satisfaction/actualization and profitability. They want something that fulfills them, something meaningful to them and something that can bring them a certain level of income. The current corporate world does not necessarily offer both to their employees."
Balancing career and family life is also what many women find difficult in today's Japanese corporate world. In their battle to combat the declining birthrate and dwindling population, both the government and large corporations have been encouraging working women to have their cake and it eat too – to maintain their career life and start a family. Some companies like Softbank, one of Japan's leading mobile phone carriers, have offered monetary gifts to employees when they have children.
Japan Inc. Not So Family-Friendly
But Japan Inc. is not always as family friendly as it presents itself. Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said while 60 percent of women remain in the workforce at the time of marriage, only 20 percent continue to do so after they have a child. The ministry said in its report that "while many companies are trying to introduce child leave, women still choose to leave their work once they have a child."
The social infrastructure has not necessarily caught up with the shift in the work and life style of today's Japanese women. A lack of daycare, for instance, forces many mothers who yearn to work to remain at home instead. More than 20,000 children under school age across Japan are waiting to get into daycare, according to the ministry.
"Starting a business can be a solution for women who want to have both a career and a family," said Yamaguchi of Trenders. "Women no longer have to choose between career and family. Many actually feel they want and should have both. If a company does not help them achieve both, why not help themselves?"